Czech avant-garde composer. Born 1899 in Brno, died 1944 in Auschwitz death camp.

Pavel Haas was born on June 21st 1899 in the Czech town of Brno, the son of a Jewish Czech businessman. His uncle and brother were both actors and stage music fascinated him; his work includes several pieces for the stage and for film. Haas studied under Leos Janacek from 1920 and was heavily influenced by him. A true post-World War composer, his neoclassical, new tonal composition was colorful and vital.

By the mid-thirties, Haas had composed some fifty works, while holding down a non-musical job. He clearly drew inspiration from the modernist movement, from Janacek, from Igor Stravinsky's jazzy, less serious, at times humorous touch, and from Alban Berg's masterful atonal expression. Czech (Moravian) folk-music also peeps through at times.

Haas was publicly acclaimed in 1937 for his stirring tragicomic opera Sarlatan (Charlatan or Quack) about a medieval doctor, but in my opinion his great achievements were, in fact, his more compact, succinct, String Quartets. No. 2, composed 1925 (entitled "Z opicich hor", or "From the Monkey Mountains") is a joyful, optimistic, poetic landscape piece inspired by the hilly region of his native Moravia, and rendered with a distinctly jazz-inspired medley of instruments. Apparently, it was scored initally for a jazz band. Haas wrote also for wind instruments, and for the piano. He perfected the use of rhythm, alongside or instead of tonality, an avant-garde technique he no doubt acquired from Berg.

As clear and careless as his String Quartet 2 is, basking in the renewed hope which followed World War I, String Quartet 3 (1938), at the other end of Haas's brief inter-war prolificity, is full of foreboding. Although intermittently cheerful, the theme is a thin cover for several dark, deep currents which pulse through the three movements, competing for precendence. Haas presents the listener with a constant struggle between disturbing themes, which must be interpreted in the piece's historical context. As a Jew in a country coming steadily under the influence of Nazi Germany, with World War looming again, the anxiety he instilled in this work is only to be expected. Perhaps inevitably, the quartet ends without resolving the conflict: the drama is summarised to round off the piece, but is by no means resolved.

In late 1941, occupying Nazi troops rounded up tens of thousands of Czech Jews. Haas, among many others, was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. This followed having his music (and himself) banned from public appearances, after being branded "Entartete Musik" (Degenerate Music) by Nazi "critics"; the term applied loosely to any avant-garde, atonal, jazz-like, or (naturally) Jewish composition and composer. (This succeeded the banning of literature and visual arts known as "Entartete Kunst".) Returning to his prior music, one can almost imagine hearing Haas foreshadow the horrors of the Holocaust.

The transportation to the camp broke off Haas's work on a symphony he had started, but it did not stop his creative work for long. Gideon Klein, who maintained a lively musical community inside the camp, badgered him to return to work, despite the terrible living conditions. Divorced from his Christian wife (with the intent that she should be spared the camps), and immediately aware of the terrible way things were headed, his subsequent work was suffused with forlorn hope. Three instances of this work remain: Haas composed dozens of pieces, but most have not survived.

In mid-1944, a Nazi propaganda film depicting the cultural life within Theresienstadt featured a performance of Haas's stirringly vital "Study for String Orchestra" (composed earlier, at Theresienstadt, but staged purely for this purpose). This was intended to depict a contented, artistic community, under the benevolent protection of the Third Reich. On October 16th, along with compatriot composer Hans Krasa, most of the Theresienstadt musical community who had performed on film, and thousands of others who had "outlived their usefulness", Haas was led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the extermination camp to which Czech Jews were transported.

Although his music is undoubtedly great in its own right, it is instructive, and perhaps fitting, to appreciate Haas's work in light of his own (but by no means personal) history.

Some web resources:

  • Discography:

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